Our efforts to save your adventure-deficient summer before the season fades continues with today’s installment: paddling.
Of the four basic adventure groups we’re focused on in our SYS series (Hiking, Backpacking, Camping and Paddling), paddling may be the most summer dependent. Sure, you can take the canoe or kayak out early fall, perhaps into mid-October, but most of us like being on the water when the water is refreshing, not bone chilling. Thus, these next two or three weeks are critical if you hope to work in a tale-worthy trip.
The five paddle trips we’ve selected achieve their AQ — Adventure Quotient — in different ways. Some (Merchants Millpond, Goose Creek) earn their spot for their exotic allure. Others (Upper Haw and Dan rivers) for tossing in a little friskiness. And, of course, you can’t beat a little all-out friskiness (U.S. National Whitewater Center).
All are also good from the standpoint of accessibility: if you don’t have a boat, some have onsite rentals, in all cases you can rent a boat nearby.


1. Merchants Millpond
Merchants Millpond State Park
This 760-acre retired millpond has been taken over by bald cypress and tupelo gum trees that create both a sense of intimacy and enormity. You can paddle a long while here and not duplicate your tracks — or if you do, you won’t know it. Sure, there’s a marked paddle trail, but lose site of just one white marker and the adventure is one. Be sure to pack a compass and map in your dry bag. On the dark, tannic waters of Merchants Millpond you’ll paddle through green mats of floating duckweed and water fern. You’re often serenaded by a chorus of frogs: carpenter, leopard, bull, cricket, tree. Cooters abandon their sunning perch atop downed logs signaling your approach. Water snakes abound (yes, there are cottonmouths) and because this is such a rich, lush environment the trees are typically full of birds: more than 200 species of regulars and migrants have been recorded here. Pack a guidebook in your dry bag as well.
Canoe rentals are available, $5 for the first hour, $3 for each hour thereafter.
More info here.

Photo by Paul Naoum
Photo by Paul Naoum

2. Goose Creek/Flatty Creek/Pamlico River
Goose Creek State Park

From the put-in off Dinah’s Landing Road (SR 1365) there’s not much more than a mile of paddling up Goose Creek. Which is just fine, because this is one of those paddles where you’re prone to drop your paddle and your jaw as this blackwater swamp slowly swallows you. Red cedar, black gum, red maple, tupelo, loblolly pine and cypress tower above the banks, while the understory is dense with wax myrtle, gallberry and red bay. Spanish moss hangs tinsel-like from the trees. Not surprisingly, this is great habitat for birds. Marsh wrens, rails and species of herons and egrets abound, as do barred owls and red-shouldered hawks. Fall and spring migrants, including the tundra swan and Canada geese, love to stop over at Goose Creek. Keep an eye out as well for a variety of frogs, turtles and snakes, including the banded and red-bellied water snakes, and venomous cottonmouth. Minks, muskrats, raccoons, river otters, bobcats, black bears, gray foxes and even the occasional red wolf are here as well. Should you still have time, you can sample the bigger yet protected waters of adjoining Flatty Creek and the Pamlico River.
More info here


3. Upper Haw River
Shallow Ford Natural Area

Think of paddling and the Haw River and your thoughts generally turn to the lower Haw, from Swepsonville downstream to Jordan Lake. But there’s good paddling to be had, water willing, on the Haw above the renovated mill village of Glencoe. One of the friendlier sections of the upper Haw is the 5.5 miles from the Shallow Ford Natural Area to the Indian Valley Paddle Access. As the good folks at Haw River Canoe & Kayak put it, “This is a beautiful gentle paddle with a few small rapids to Indian Valley.” Whether you’re a newbie paddler with minimal experience or a more accomplished boater looking for an easy, enjoyable day on the water, isn’t this what you look for in a summer paddle: placid flatwater stretches interrupted by a riffle or two to elevate your heartbeat just a bit. Add to that the lush, junglelike forest that butts up to the river and you’re looking at a great day on the water. One caveat: this stretch is best run after a rain: if the USGS gauge at Haw River doesn’t read 2 feet or more, you could be dragging your bottom.
More info here.


4. Dan River: Section 4
Vicinity of Hanging Rock State Park
Another advantage of summer paddling: if you’re in challenging water on a hot day and happen to flip, it’s less frightening, more refreshing. On this 8.5-mile stretch of river you’ll find several Class I rapids and one Class II. The former is in the form of widely spaced grave bars; the latter comes around the 5.5-mile mark where the Dan wraps around a rock island. The take-out is a small creek, river right, that feeds into the Moore’s Springs Campground. Make a weekend expedition out of your paddle by spending the night, then exploring adjoining Hanging Rock State Park. If you need to arrange a shuttle or need a boat, check with the nearby Dan River Company.
More info here.


5. National Whitewater Center
Looking for a shortcut for a summer whitewater rafting trip? Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center offers mountain water thrills minus the mountain drive. The half-mile long, man-made concrete whitewater course, is the longest manmade whitewater river in the world, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a constant flow of Class I-III water you can run all day without a break. Or you could, if there weren’t the temptation to avail yourself of the Center’s other adventures — climbing, canopy tours, mountain biking and zip lines, to name a few. If you’re into a solo gig, a wide range of whitewater kayak instruction is available as well; stay two days and hone your skills. Plus, you needn’t worry about local rainfall ruining your stay; this 12 million gallon, well-fed river runs all day.
More info here.

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For more paddle adventures, check out our online guide to paddling in North Carolina.

Check out our other Save Your Summer adventures: